This is part of a series of posts inspired by the Royal Society’s One Culture festival of literature and the arts.

Guest post by Jasmine Fox-Skelly, digital volunteer

Time fascinates us. From considering it as an abstract cosmological concept, to experiencing it as a more personal narrative; time is an essence deeply rooted in our identities. Three writers with a particular interest and insight into time spoke at an event as part of The Royal Society’s pioneering ‘One Culture’ literary festival. Professor John Barrow, an expert in mathematics at Cambridge University joined Dame Gillian Beer, who is shortly to publish a work on time in the Alice books by Lewis Caroll, and Eva Hoffman a renowned writer, literary critic and author of the book ‘Time’  to discuss how time controls and captivates us.

John Wheeler once said that time exists in order to stop everything happening at once, and that space exists to stop everything from happening in Cambridge. With this in mind Professor Barrow, who is the author of ‘The Book of Universes’ began by defining three different types of time. Thermodynamic time can be understood by the ‘arrow of time’ a term coined by the British astronomer Arthur Eddington to describe the fact that time moves in one direction only. The second type of time is Cosmic Geometric Time, and our understanding of this has changed throughout history. In Isaac Newton’s day it was believed that time was an absolute constant. This all changed when Einstein revolutionised the world’s way of thinking with his general and special theories of relativity. Einstein theorized that time changed according to the speed of a moving object relative to the frame of reference of an observer. For example if two identical twins were separated at birth, and one travelled around the Earth in a rocket, when he returned he would be younger than his brother. The final type of time is Psychological time, a subjective experience that exists within the substrate of the human mind and is best demonstrated by the well known fact that time does indeed go quicker when you are having fun, and slower when you are bored.

Gillian Beer, Eva Hoffman and John Barrow on stage at One Culture

Eva Hoffman spoke particularly about human time and how time is experienced in our psyches. As humans we experience time as moving fatefully in one direction, we have a sense of our past and the present we are living in, but we can only imagine the future. However whilst maintaining a sense of the linearity of time, our conception of it is still malleable and changeable; we can bring our memories of the past and our hopes for the future into our experience of the present. Our brain is capable of such plasticity that whilst each person’s personal history is created in neurons and their synaptic connections, these are changing constantly. We are always putting together a personal narrative, whilst simultaneously allowing time for thoughts to meander and leap backwards from the present to the past, allowing new connections and ideas to form.

Eva suggested that time is built into our psyches because it helps us make sense of the external world, and that narrative in storytelling evolved because we needed to know what happened to hunters on their travels as we listened to their stories around camp fires. Eva also suggested that the way in which we experience time is intrinsically linked to our happiness and wellbeing. For example people suffering from mental illness can experience extreme distortions of time; in depression people’s perception of time is twice as long as actual external time, whilst people suffering from psychosis experience fragmentation of time. In her closing remarks Eva warned that our ever increasing use of fast technological devices have led to us adopting a culture of ‘fast time’, thus curtailing the processes of intellectual enquiry that lead to inventiveness and creativity, and depriving us of a fully human sense of who we are.

Therefore culture can affect the way in which we perceive and experience time, however our experience of time can also have a great effect on our culture. Professor John Barrow remarked that the part of the world that you live in can dictate your perception of time. Living far from the equator for example will imbue you with a keener sense of the changes of the seasons and the passing of time than if you live on the equator. Our knowledge of time can also have a great effect on our culture. In Newton’s day his depiction of the Universe as regimented and structured led to a culture which had a world view of determinism, but this changed with Einstein’s theory of General relativity which gave rise to all sorts of paradoxes which were explored in literature.

An example of the concept of time being explored through literature comes in Lewis Caroll’s Alice books. In the mid nineteenth century space and time were beginning to be more understood. In those times the watch had just begun to control industrial production, and the increasing use of railways and the need for accurate timekeeping had just led to the standardizing of time across Britain. Lewis Caroll was a mathematician and very much interested in these developments. Dame Gillian Beer talked about how concepts such as the perceived linearity of time are subverted in his books. For example in Alice through the Looking Glass the temporal linear aspect of chess is inverted; to approach things you have to walk backwards, and to stay in the same place you have to run forward. This challenges our assumptions of the universality of time. Similarly the assumption that a body can move forward through space and time without being changed is subverted as by turns Alice is able to make herself bigger and smaller in order to get into the garden beyond.

It is clear that throughout history, people’s experience and knowledge of time has had a profound effect on culture and literature. It is also clear that we humans are fascinated by time. We have a need for narrative in order to understand the sequential unfolding of events; we need a beginning, a middle and an end. However we are also intrigued by the complexities and ambiguities that arise when this linearity is subverted.

After the event I caught up with two of the speakers, and you can listen to podcasts of my conversations with Gillian Beer and Eva Hoffman. The whole event was recorded live for, click here to launch the player and watch About Time online

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